Only at the end of December was it clear that Vauxhall had edged a points victory, overturning the result of 2002 with a lead of only 7,859 vehicles.
Latest figures produced by the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show Vauxhall supplied 221,806 cars to fleets during 2003, against Ford's 213,947 units.
It marks the first time Vauxhall has gained first place in the fleet car market from Ford.
Vauxhall fleet sales director Maurice Howkins said: 'We are delighted to have broken through to the number one position.
'Last year was a battle ground as more manufacturers attempted to break into the fleet market. But we have the range of cars that fleet customers want and an infrastructure to provide the highest possible level of customer care.'
The manufacturer said it was already confident of maintaining a lead position this year, claiming its new Astra – on sale in May – will provide a great platform for fleet sales. Executives are confident the new Astra will also prove a popular draw to user-choosers.
Giving their reaction, a Ford spokesman said: 'We are delighted to lead the total UK vehicle market for the 27th straight year in 2003, including having Focus as overall best-seller, number one fleet car and Mondeo as number one diesel car in Britain with more than 12% of the segment.
'Our UK fleet sales are a critical part of this success and we are committed to a balanced approach between our fleet and retail businesses.
'However, part of this is recognition that profitability from our fleet sales is not necessarily maximised by chasing outright or short-cycle volume targets.'
Fleet sales top one million mark for seventh year in succession
ANNUAL fleet sales were the second highest on record last year, topping one million for the seventh year running.
Total new car sales, including those to private buyers, achieved a record 2,579,050 units in 2003, up 0.6% on the previous year.
The success of business sales to small fleets saw the sector register 255,949 units during 2003, an increase of 8.3% on 2002, but fleet sales were down by 2% at 1,068,174 units – still the second best year on record compared to last year's high of 1,090,398.
SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan said: 'The 2003 UK car market outshone Europe with a third record year of registrations. While figures fell across the continent, the UK market continued to climb, cementing our position as Europe's second biggest market.
'Increased consumer confidence has seen private buyers lead a strong, stable market reflecting the general economic trend of the country. An ever-growing range of models boasting newly-developed technologies has led to consistent growth over the last decade with volumes looking set to remain stable into 2004.'
Keith Parry, head of the Motor Retail group at Barclays Business Banking, said: 'The strong increase in December registrations helped tip the balance but this could mean that January stock levels are higher than average. Crowded forecourts and continued competition pressures could lead to tighter margins for dealers and good deals for buyers.'
Industry experts say a trend towards smaller cars helped to make 2003 the best ever year for car sales. Registrations of superminis increased by 5.1% in 2003.
The SMMT said: 'The ever-growing model list, now featuring new technology previously reserved for luxury cars and available at an affordable price, has seen the supermini market flourish, providing a cornerstone to the overall market growth.'
Alan Pulham, franchised dealer director for the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI), added: 'Smaller cars provide a high quality vehicle and value for money to the consumer at the same time. This is a combination that has proved a hit with private buyers.
'In the past, consumers would upgrade to a larger car in search of refinement and reliability, but today's small car will often have the same level of equipment and be as dependable as any larger car.'
MINI helps BMW to record sales figures
Sales of 134,000 BMW and MINI models represent an increase of 10.8% compared to 2002's figures.
The group said that taking 5.21% meant its highest UK market share in its history. Overall sales of BMWs reached 93,700 sales, up 10% on 2002, while MINI achieved 40,500 registrations, the marque's best performance since the vehicle's UK launch in July 2001 and 14% higher than in 2002.
Strong demand for the Oxford-built MINI continues with a market share of 1.57%, helped by the introduction of the diesel model in June 2003. The Cooper remains the most popular MINI with 19,000 vehicles registered in 2003, just under half of all models sold in the UK.
BMW Group has also achieved an increase in worldwide sales for all brands, setting a new sales record of more than 1.1 million BMW and MINI vehicles delivered to customers in 2003.
Commenting on the record performance, Jim O'Donnell, managing director of BMW (GB), said: 'Despite a very competitive market in 2003, demand for premium vehicles has remained strong and we have been able to take advantage of this with both our BMW and MINI brands.
'Our premium strategy is beginning to deliver real growth and with a number of new models to be launched in 2004, including the X3, the 6-series Coupe and Convertible, new 5-series Touring, the MINI Convertible and the 1-series, we are seeking to exploit the potential for future growth in this area of the market.'
New BMW brand models launched last year include the 5-Series, which went on sale in September, and has contributed to a 2% increase from 12,917 to 13,133 vehicles despite the run out of the outgoing models and the Z4 which achieved more than 4,400 registrations since its launch in June.
Kia proves Britain's rising star
KIA is claiming the title of the UK's fastest growing car manufacturer – achieving a 71% sales increase over 2002.
Managing director Paul Williams said: 'Kia has capitalised on a strong but value-for-money-conscious consumer marketplace in 2003.
'Our vehicle products have shown consistent improvement in terms of style and quality led by our Sorento 4x4, while the expansion of our network to 131 dealerships offers customers easier access to our products and services.
'Our intention is to maintain the momentum we have achieved on existing products in 2003 and to reach 30,000 sales in 2004 with the introduction of our Picanto small car which will entice new customers to the brand.'
Vauxhall van sales shine too
IT'S not just cars that achieved record sales results during 2003 – the commercial vehicle market also celebrated its best ever year.
A total of 303,755 new registrations were recorded for vans weighing up to 3.5-tonnes, an increase of 14% when compared to the previous year. The previous record volume was set in 1989 with 298,836 units.
Commenting on CV sales as a whole, SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan said: '2003 was a remarkable year for business investment in new vehicles as market growth showed an unexpected strength and durability.
'A wide range of businesses showed significant confidence in the future of their markets and a need for modern, comfortable and adaptable CVs. December's figures continued the robust growth trend seen over 11 of the past 12 months.
'With gross domestic product growth accelerating again and business confidence firm in the UK, the new CV market is well placed to hold 2003's strong registration volumes into 2004. Slowing growth in consumer spending will clearly be challenging, but the expected growth in business investment and healthy activity levels in construction and other service sectors bodes well for the immediate future.'
Vauxhall's commercial vehicle sales division is celebrating its own record high. Sales at 49,982 units were up by 54.3% on 2002, which itself was a 31.1% rise on 2001.
'We are proud of these figures,' said national van sales manager Ian Hucker. 'What they show is simply that if you are able to offer a full range of vans with full aftersales back-up you are a winner.
'That is precisely what Vauxhall set out to do when we to a large extent relaunched the Vauxhall vans brand just two years ago.'
Eight out of top 10 makers see their fleet sales drop
ONLY two out of the top-10 best selling fleet manufacturers increased their vehicle sales to companies last year.
Vauxhall, which holds the number one position, increased its fleet sales by 3.5% compared to 2002 while Toyota, in seventh place, was the other shining star, noting an increase of 1.7%. The biggest percentage fall among the top 10 fleet manufacturers came from Citroen, down 25.6%, while Volkswagen represents the smallest drop at -0.5%.
The most popular models among fleets during 2003 include the Vauxhall Astra, Renault Megane, Peugeot 307 and Volkswagen Golf.
The Ford Focus was again crowned as best-selling fleet model, although sales dropped by 11%.
Focus stablemate the Fiesta recorded the biggest sales increase to fleets, up 26.2%. This would have been influenced by the launch of the three-door variant at the end of 2002.
In terms of diesel sales, the Vauxhall Vectra recorded the biggest year-on-year increase, at 32.2%, but the best-selling model during 2003 was the Ford Mondeo, with sales up by 7.3%.
Other diesel increases were recorded by Volkswagen Passat, Vauxhall Astra, Renault Laguna and Audi A4.
Some of the biggest falls, however, were noted in fleet petrol sales. Out of the top 10 performers, Mondeo sales fell by 40.2% and Vectra's by 35.3%.
Other petrol cars noting a drop in sales included the Astra (15.6%), Renault Megane (9.6%) and Clio (18.7%).
Petrol did have is own success stories though with the Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Zafira all increasing their sales last year.
The move away from petrol can be linked to changes in company car taxation introduced during 2002, which based tax bills on carbon dioxide emissions, with diesel offering lower CO2, as well as steady improvements in diesel engine technology.